Tiger Woods will not tee off in this year's Masters and could be forced to watch the world's No. 1 ranking taken from him without being able to fire any live ammunition in defence.
No matter what one may think of Woods, his wresting back of the top perch a little over a year ago was a remarkable accomplishment, considering the downfall he had experienced since late 2009.
It was logical to assume last March, as he walked off the 18th green in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, that winning major tournaments would be the next step as Woods chases Jack Nicklaus's mark of 18 such crowns.
Woods was just four in arrears then, as he had been for almost five years.
What a difference a year makes.
Clearly in pain in limited appearances this season, Woods may never move closer to Nicklaus, especially with last week's news that he underwent back surgery and is out indefinitely.
It is the strongest sign yet that Woods is finished as the automatic favourite entering the majors. Of those who could unseat Woods as No. 1, the hot favourites start with defending champion Adam Scott.
Three weeks ago, the 33-year-old Australian stubbed his toe on the same Bay Hill layout where Woods clinched his No. 1 ranking a year earlier, coughing up a huge lead to finish third. Before, a collapse of such proportion would add another layer to the sense of dread that had surrounded Scott in big tournaments.
His stirring performance at Augusta last year, when he won in a playoff over Angel Cabrera, was, in the words of Australian golf journalist Martin Blake, a triumph akin to "Mike Weir's 10 years earlier, and double it," in terms of what it meant to Australian golf.
The confidence Scott now has from winning at Augusta neutralizes any lingering doubt about his lack of finish at Bay Hill. If Scott finishes third of better in the Masters, he will drive down Magnolia Lane with "world's No. 1" beside his name.
Henrik Stenson of Sweden also can claim the No. 1 ranking with a first- or second-place showing this week. There isn't much in Stenson's recent form to suggest he can win at Augusta aside from the impressive, stoic resolve he's shown in the past few years to become the third-ranked golfer in the world. His most recent ascension came after he suffered a prolonged slump and almost lost his PGA Tour card, no doubt helped by being ripped off by conman Allen Stanford.
(Stenson lost millions when Stanford's Ponzi schemes collapsed a few years back. Stanford lost more than that - he is currently serving more than 100 years in a Texas prison).
The other player to watch is fourth-ranked Jason Day, another Aussie who has contended twice at the Masters and very nearly won last year until wobbles coming home left the door open for countryman Scott and runner-up Cabrera. Day has suffered from a thumb injury over the past six weeks, but has pronounced himself fit this week.
If Day wins, he will leapfrog over Woods, Scott and Stenson into top spot in the world rankings.
Those three, plus Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, are attracting the smart money so far. After a mostly forgettable 2013, McIlroy beat Scott at the Australian Open late last year and has been inching up leaderboards in the U.S., where he now seems more comfortable living full-time, evidenced by the announcement that he's engaged to tennis ace Caroline Wozniacki.
The Canadian contingent is made up of Graham DeLaet of Weyburn, Sask., and 2003 champion Mike Weir of Brights Grove, Ont. Both men held media conference calls two weeks ago and pronounced themselves ready to play well at Augusta.
It's difficult to see Weir doing anything significant this week, but DeLaet offers an interesting perspective.
Though he has cooled off in recent weeks, DeLaet's recent run of high-finishes is among the very best ever accomplished by a Canadian on the PGA Tour. Though he hasn't (yet) won on tour, DeLaet has come second or third five times since last June and has another three finishes between fourth and eighth. All of that was sandwiched around DeLaet's 3-1-1 performance at the Presidents Cup last October.
Those numbers compare to the runs put together by Weir in 2003 that culminated in him winning the Masters and by Stephen Ames a year later that led into the Calgarian's first PGA Tour win at the old Western Open.
It could be that DeLaet is working toward his first PGA Tour victory, but it's hard to imagine it coming this week. First-timers typically struggle on the nuanced Augusta layout and especially on its slick greens, but it's not out of the realm to see him post a high finish.
Others to watch?
Patrick Reed is a brash young Texan who raised eyebrows by pronouncing himself one of the world's top-five golfers when he won for the second time this year at Doral. Though not as flashy, Jordan Spieth, also from Texas, could be a factor at the tender age of 20.
And what of Sergio Garcia? He has been mostly first-rate so far this season, including a third last week at Houston. The Spaniard is now 34, but 15 years ago was in roughly the same position as Reed and Spieth, seemingly destined for greatness.
That hasn't happened and Garcia's flame-outs have often been of the spectacular variety. Like so many players in his age bracket, however, Garcia's failure to win a major title more often than not could be put down to having to go through Woods to get there.
The man who takes the green-clad curtain call Sunday won't have to worry about that obstacle, a telling reality that could be the new normal.
If it isn't already.
Follow Peter Robinson on Twitter @PRGolfWriter
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